For the 45 million people living in rural Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) there are few livelihood opportunities beyond the exploitation of forest resources. Widespread poverty, regular food insecurity, post-conflict instability, and rampant unemployment are everyday struggles shoving rural dwellers to unsustainably use their country’s vast natural capital, which should be in principle the driving force for their development and wellbeing.
This conflicting reality represents a real threat to Africa’s most important tropical rainforest, the Congo Basin. This unique ecosystem, 60 percent of which is found in DRC, contributes to biodiversity conservation, carbon storage and mitigates the effects of climate change. And while it remains largely untouched, it is slowly gnawed away by a growing population and demand for natural resources and farmland.
In an attempt to address these issues, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) is working with the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) and Resources and Synergies Development (R&SD) to create tree plantations in previously deforested areas in northern DRC’s Tshopo province. These plantations will produce biomass to supply electricity to the neighboring communities, create new business opportunities and provide much needed jobs for local people.
“This initiative is a win-win for the population and the environment,” says Nils Bourland, senior scientist at the RMCA. “We are supporting the local economy by using degraded land to meet the energy demand and reduce pressure on the surrounding primary forests.”
“We started by collecting seeds, and then growing the trees in a nursery in 2017. The first transplantation took place in 2018”, explains Martin Van Hulle, who leads the plantations project for R&SD. He points out that until now 30 hectares have been planted, or around 80,000 trees, but the team’s expectation is that from 2019 onwards they can plant around 300 hectares a year. “We have already trained local workers and developed a functioning system, so we are ready to scale up.”
The land used for these plantations mostly belongs to the Congolese Institute for Agronomy Research (INERA) and in colonial times it was used for tropical crop plantations. “In the mid-century this was a booming site that produced rubber, coffee, banana, and palm oil, among others,” says Bourland. “However, both land and former plantations are no longer productive, and it has been unexploited for decades.” In line with INERA’s plan to rehabilitate those lands, this makes it the perfect place for biomass production, he argues.
This activity is part of the FORETS project, a 27-million-euro initiative funded by the European Union to promote the integrated development of the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve. Its objective is to support the sustainable use of biodiversity by creating livelihood opportunities in an area of about 400,000 hectares.
The plantations depend on natural rain cycles, which makes them vulnerable to unpredictable weather.